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To sequel or not to sequel: That is the question

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Will Gompertz | 16:29 UK time, Friday, 19 February 2010

There's a story - I don't know if it's true - about a Hollywood studio which commissioned some very expensive market research in the late 1980s to find out which kind of movie made the most money.

Some time, and millions of dollars later, a high-level delegation attended a meeting to hear the results. In a room tense with expectation and solemnity, the moguls were told that the genre most likely to provide a return on their investment was... the sequel.

If it is true, I doubt they were amused. But there is little doubt that sequels can be big business. Initial one-off creations can be turned into lucrative franchises and brands. And although there are too many examples of hideous, cynical follow-ups that debase the original artistic creation, there are also instances where a sequel has proved to be as good as - or even better than - the original story.

Many think The Godfather: Part II was better than The Godfather, and even And Another Thing..., Eoin Colfer's follow-up to Douglas Adams's Hitchhikers series, received some positive reviews, despite the original work's famously loyal fan-base.

Dunsinane and Wide Sargasso SeaWhat's more unusual is to take a very old work and to use a sequel as a device to explore modern issues. David Greig's new play Dunsinane is a sequel to Shakespeare's Macbeth, without iambic pentameter and written in right-up-to-the-minute prose.

Swearing and contemporary colloquialisms such as "there are some positives" abound. The play is not a homage to the great Bard, but an exploration of the broader issues of invading armies. The men in the 11th-Century English army which has invaded Scotland constantly moan about the discomforts of a foreign land. Their leaders don't understand the subtleties of local life and are therefore easily manipulated and fooled.

And then there's the "do-gooding" nature of Siward, an English general, who desperately wants to create a political climate where peace can become the norm. His efforts are witheringly summed-up by Gruach - the forename given by Greig to Lady Macbeth, who Shakespeare clearly failed to finish off properly - when she tells him:

"You're a good man, Siward. It would have been better if you weren't. There would have been less blood."

It's not difficult for audiences to make connections between the events in the play and the current events in Afghanistan.

It prompted me to think about what other classic works of literature have been brought up to date with a sequel, prequel or spin-off, their stories taken to new places by different authors. Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a spin-off based on Shakespeare's Hamlet. But what other pre-20th-Century plays or books are ripe for a sequel? And what would the plot be? Conversely, are there any works that should be protected from sequels, like listed buildings of the written word?

Maybe all fiction - be it a play, book, TV programme, video game or movie - is some kind of sequel of sorts. In a book by Christopher Booker called The Seven Basic Plots, he argues that there is only a handful of archetypal themes which recur in all storytelling. It's an interesting argument.


  • Comment number 1.

    If the question is about what makes money the sequel is less expensive to make and a following is in hand. What may have been on the cutting room floor can be used for a new version of the same story...there tend to be flashbacks in sequels.

  • Comment number 2.

    Sequels and prequels are only about money, in fact rather more about money that the original. The original story generally is not that original at all, and that too is about money! Books and publishing are about money - see for example Agatha Christie's attempt to kill of Poirot being reversed by pressure from her publishers for more stories. All sensible commercial organisations 'look before they leaps' and hence a reasonable amount of due diligence is commercially sensible.

    I really don't understand why Will Gompertz thinks that this story is a story at all - now, if a film company made a film without assessing its commercial viability - now that would be a story! My conclusion is that Mr Gompertz has been in the subsidised arts business for far too and has either never had, or has lost touch, with the harsh financial realities of life, be it in the arts or outside.

  • Comment number 3.

    Series are one thing, sequels another. A 'sequel' is just not another adventure for the hero, it's a continuation of his life situation following directly on the closing of the first installment. A 'sequel' is nothing more than the next chapter in a serial. If the original author saw the possibilties of carrying on the lives of the characters in a direct way you have a multi-volume work: Dumas fils - The three musketerrs, Twenty years after, The man in the iron mask. I have rarely seen a film 'sequel' to a film 'classic' that worked. Nor read such as a satisfactory novel by another hand. But I have enjoyed series, film and fiction, by divers hands carrying on with the same hero.

  • Comment number 4.

    I was once of the opinion that a film cannot be remade. However, there is an important proof to that rule. A bad film may be remade and it becomes a classic. The wizard of oz was made many times before the classic Judy Garland version. Oceans 11 was a bad film, however the remake was not. In reverse, the Italian Job and Alfie fail.

  • Comment number 5.

    No offense to Mr Gompertz, but this article comes off as incredibly ill-researched and asinine.

    "In a room tense with expectation and solemnity, the moguls were told that the genre most likely to provide a return on their investment was... the sequel.

    If it is true, I doubt they were amused."

    Seriously? Have you any idea how the movie industry works? Maximize profit with minimum risk. Sequels and franchises are loved by studio bigwhigs, precisely because they can take a proven formula and turn it into mountains of money, with minimum risk and/or originality. This has been true ever since the Sixties, when Sean Connery started out as James Bond. It's also blindingly obvious to anyone above the age of twelve who regularly watches movies.

    "In a book by Christopher Booker called The Seven Basic Plots, he argues that there is only a handful of archetypal themes which recur in all storytelling. It's an interesting argument."

    Joseph Campbell also wrote a book. It's called "Hero With A Thousand Faces". It came in 1949, long before The Seven Basic Plots, and pioneered the concept of the hero's journey.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    The recently released "A Wolk on the Wild Side" is a biopic of the most concise yet moving kind. It tells the life of the gifted, yet largely forgotten, British painter Martin Wolk. There is no need for a sequel. But nevertheless, we shall probably get one sooner or later.

  • Comment number 8.

    In reply to j-e-f-f-e-r-s post above:
    I think the analogy Will (the author) made makes more sense when you realise it is referring to a SINGLE studio.
    I think the point is that you can hardly make a sequel if you didn't already make or own the rights to the original..? Therefore, the market research has been wasted?
    I think I could make a billion dollars if I set up a studio to make "Avatar 2" - that knowledge is not much use to me, without owning the rights though, is it?
    On your second point, I think the pioneer of the concept of the hero's journey would be Homer (the odyssey) surely? (written by 600BC at the latest)

  • Comment number 9.

    We could also look at movies that were remade as musicals. For instance, Ninotchka and Silk Stockings were both excellent. The musical remake of Lost Horizon was dreadful.
    I like West Side Story from Romeo and Juliet. You couldn't remake West Side Story but you can do an infinite number of movies from Romeo and Juliet. If a studio wants to produce a sequel on the cheap, it should go with out of copyright material, although I'm not sure about a sequel to a play where the main characters end up dead. Perhaps they should stick to Shakespeare's comedies rather than his tragedies. I don't think A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum could be remade but it does show that a canny studio would do well to look to the past to save money.
    One of my favorite remakes was turning The Front Page into His Gal Friday. I don't think you can do better than that.
    It would be great to see controversial plays by people like Tennessee Williams made into unexpurgated movies but the originals were often so well acted and constructed that they would overshadow any later attempt.

  • Comment number 10.

    I realize they aren't plays or movies, but I am amazed at the number of Pride & Prejudice sequels that are out. It seems if you apply Jane Austen's name to something it will automatically get published. The thing that amazes me is most of them are crap although like everything there are some good ones out there. My question is Pride & Prejudice is wonderful (in my opinion) why do we need to know what happens after the happily ever after and why are so many of them obsessed with Darcy and Elizabeth's sex lives.

  • Comment number 11.

    Good piece, Gomp, to get me thinking.
    Generally-speaking, I’m not a great fan of sequels.
    On the PRO SIDE
    1. Blockbuster sequels are almost a guarantee of $$$$, and sadly, $$$$ seems to be the manner in which our society judges movie greatness. SHAME.
    Okay, that was my PRO, and trust me I tried hard to think of other PROs – like maybe expanding the original story line.
    On the CON side
    1. Most sequels tend to be disappointments, and this disappointment increases as the number goes up, i.e. sequel # 95 will be less worthy of seeing than # 94, and both will be pathetic take-offs on the original.
    2. Studio interference can reduce Director’s originality e.g. Sam Raimi – "Spiderman" - original + first sequel were great. Third sequel studio made demands. Fourth sequel scrapped.
    Talking about sequel, Christopher Booker’s book – all 700 pages – is a sequel to ancient Greek writings. All Greek plays delve into complexes and other consequences that sprout from human experience. A few examples, using only 2 of Booker's 7, will demonstrate my point:
    The Quest - The Odyssey (Homer), the Aeneid (Virgil).
    Tragedy - Oedipus Rex (Sophocles) which by the way was sequelled by Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone, neither of which I viewed as quite on a par with Oedipus Rex.

  • Comment number 12.

    Comment number 9 (skidoo23) makes me want to add - but what about Pygmalion/My Fair Lady and The Philadelphia Story/High Society? Not sequels, true, but surely unmissoutable in any list of musical versions of films - and both hugely successful. As for the death of the main character being a problem, just think Dallas/Bobby/shower; if we actually want the show to go on, we will apparently swallow just about anything!

  • Comment number 13.

    In reply to carlosfandango13:

    While it's true that you have to own the rights to a film before you can make the sequel, I don't think that was what Mr Gompertz was addressing. Regardless of who owns what rights, I simply thought he was being incredibly naive (for an art critic no less) to assume that studio bigwhigs would be surprised and upset that sequels are what bring in the cash. It's been obvious ever since the spaghetti westerns that studios love franchises, and for an arts journalist in the 21st century to make such a vague, inconsequential article on the subject... this isn't meant as an attack on Mr Gompertz, I just don't think it's a particularly good piece of journalism.

    And yes, Homer could technically be called one of the fathers of the Hero's Journey, but it was Campbell who was the first to analyse it. What I've read of The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker adds precious little to what Campbell said 60 years ago in Hero With A Thousand Faces. Again, as an arts journalist for the BBC, I would have thought Mr Gompertz would have been aware of a writer as important as Campbell (he basically started comparitive mythology), and would choose to address such a subject as monomyth with more intelligence than yet more vague statements as 'It's an interesting argument'.


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